Drawing threads together

Designer Melanie Child’s upcycled denim. Photos: Christine O'Connor.
Designer Melanie Child’s upcycled denim. Photos: Christine O'Connor.
A new Otago Museum exhibition invites designers and artists to respond to garments from its costume and textile collection, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Artistic inspiration can come from all sorts of curious corners of the imagination, yet a fresh take on a suit made of salmon skin? Well, who would’ve thought?

Opening today to coincide with iD Dunedin Fashion Week, the Otago Museum exhibition "Current"  features the work of nine designers and artists who have been invited to creatively respond to  garments from the museum’s costume and textile collection.

"It’s all about the idea of inspiration and how the museum’s collections can inspire the creative process," exhibition curator and Otago Museum assistant collection manager  Jamie Metzger explains.

"We arrived at the idea late last year and put together a panel of staff members and external experts to select nine creatives to take part."

The panel comprised Dr Margo Barton, academic leader for fashion at the Otago Polytechnic School of Design; Emily Cooper, Dunedin fashion designer and chairwoman of Dunedin Designed Inc; Chloe Geoghegan, former director of the Blue Oyster Art Project Space; Dr Jane Malthus, honorary curator of European costume and textiles at Otago Museum and part-time fashion lecturer at the School of Design; as well as Otago Museum representatives.

"We wanted people who were emerging ... and also had a very contemporary approach to their practice as well. That helps provide that link to iD Fashion Week," Metzger says.

It’s inspiration, the salmon skin jacket made by fishermen of Raohe county.
It’s inspiration, the salmon skin jacket made by fishermen of Raohe county.

The result is nine displays from a range of collaborators: Devon Smith, an illustrator and tattoo artist; Flynn Morris-Clarke, a painter; James Bellaney, a painter and muralist; Kelly O’Shea, a jewellery designer; Three Cups of Tea Ceramics (aka Karen Taylor O’Neill and Elise Johnston); and fashion designers/labels Jessica Leigh, Max Mollison, Melanie Child and STEEP STReeT.

"I worked with other curators at the museum to come up with a pool of objects from the collection from which the designers and artists could choose. Obviously, we have thousands of items and it would have been impossible for them to look at them all.

"The process was led by the designers and artists. Some came in with ideas of what they wanted to choose; others were happy to go on a journey, so to speak, and be open to the diversity of the collection," Metzger explains.

"One of the most enjoyable aspects was inviting the group out the back."

Which brings us to the curious suit made entirely from salmon skin.

Traditionally worn by the Hezhen people of northeast China, the men’s outfit (comprising  jacket, trousers, hat and boots) was made in early 2000, a commission from Otago Museum enabled through the assistance of Shanghai Museum in 2013.

"It was made by fishermen of Raohe county, but has never been worn," Metzger says.

Fashion designer Melanie Child used it as inspiration for her signature approach: upcycling denim.

"She created a dress and jacket and scarf using panels taken from jeans, and that mimics how the salmon suit is panelled and stitched together. She also has applied a textural additive that gives the items a scale effect."

Some responses are more literal than others, but no less interesting, Metzger notes.

For instance, Karen Taylor O’Neill and Elise Johnston, the artists known as Three Cups of Tea Ceramics, used the iconic Swanndri bushshirt as inspiration for a checked-pattern display of crockery.

"They’ve created a very functional ceramic. I think the thought process from inspiration to the end point will be very clear.

"They have also created more than 30 teacups, which will hang on a wall of hooks, alluding to that idea of the Kiwi smoko break."

Others, however, are a bit more conceptual and will require people to delve deeper to figure out the connections between the original and its manifestation.

"Devon Smith is an illustrator and tattoo artist who is inspired by embroidery, so she was looking for patterns that spoke to her practice. She often paints very feminine objects," Metzger says.

"Also, with tattooing, you use a needle, as you do with embroidery, so  there are a lot of parallels there.

"We looked through many examples of embroidery and came across a pair of stockings from around 1910 that had roses embroidered down the bridge of the foot. They were a fleshy, pink colour and that made it look like the embroidery had been tattooed on to a leg.

"So Devon has created this beautiful illustration of these female heads with these flowers that almost look like they have been tattooed on their faces."

Metzger  says that while the exhibition coincides with iD Fashion Week, it is a stand-alone event. However,  it made sense for the museum to use  its collections to create something  of interest for visitors to the city.


The exhibition

"Current" opens at Otago Museum’s 1877 Gallery today and runs until July 2.

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